The Biblical Motif
The priest's journey through Mexico is his Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), and the novel is filled with comparisons between the priest and Christ. The protagonist's salvation is worked out upon a "true cross," which ironically necessitates his staying away from Vera Cruz.
The priest's mission is carried on in hidden barns resembling Christ's furtive stable, which quickly became a target for Herod and his pursuers. His visit to Maria resembles Christ's sojourn at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany.
In prison, the priest is treated like Christ on Holy Thursday night; and he is forced to empty the pails of excrement, a parallel to Christ's washing the feet of his Apostles at the Last Supper. In prison, too, he is compared to (and contrasted with) the "good thief," who repented on Good Friday.
When the priest ascends to the mountain plateau with the Indian woman, he sees only crooked crosses, illuminated by a low hanging Star of Bethlehem. Falling short of salvation, he feels that he is .crowned" with thorns as his sharp hat rim presses into his head. However, when he rides astride a donkey toward Calver, the priest for a moment feels at one with God; the snippet of his song, "I found a rose [Christ] in my field," indicates the rectitude of his choice not to remain in a relatively safe province.
Other biblical personages serve as well to define the protagonist and the principals of the novel. Fellows is Pilate-like in his willingness to relinquish the priest to the state — as is Padre Jose. Coral Fellows is crucified by coming into puberty; she wearily leans against the hot, hard wall of the banana station. Young Juan's story is a parody of the Gospel according to Saint John. The priest, unable to enter the village of his birth, is like Moses, shut out from the Promised Land. He baptizes a boy as "Brigitta" instead of "Pedro," just as he bungled his role in Peter's Church — that is, the Roman Catholic Church. The mestizo is a Judas-figure. And Calver becomes the "bad thief," more concerned with escape (albeit the priest's) than with salvation; his name, of course, suggests Calvary.
In his use of these religious symbols, Greene is a Modernist, one who employs a universally recognizable structure of myth to define contemporary individuals. While he may not accept the validity of every aspect of the theological system, he uses Scripture, as do James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, for "all it is worth." Padre Jose's moral cowardice, for example, becomes clearer when matched against the courage of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the Happy Family.
On three occasions, Greene describes the priest's plight in terms of a bull who is about to be killed in an arena, and allusions to animals of all types abound on the pages of the novel. Without God, Greene implies, man is reduced to the state of the lower creatures. Buzzards flap their wings as if to toll the death knell of Mexico's police state, all the time staring on with "moron" faces. Dogs figure prominently in the novel, and during a crucial chapter, the priest battles a starving mongrel for the last bit of rancid meat on a discarded bone.
The priest is chased through the streets of the capital city like a rat through a maze by the Red Shirts, and the mestizo is compared to a bloodhound as he relentlessly stalks the clergyman. The mestizo sits in his jail cell, calling for beer as flies buzz around his vomit; and, in jail, the priest discovers that the hostage Miguel has been beaten like an animal; flies are buzzing around his wounded eye. The lieutenant tries to kill the numerous black insects that scurry across his book, but his gesture is as futile as his attempts to prevent future priests from coming into his state.
Humanity at its most abject level is seen in the hungry clergyman's treatment of the mongrel: the dog becomes an "altar boy," as the priest, using a bit of Latin from the Mass service, deceives the animal into relinquishing its hold on the bone. Ironically, Greene's theme in all of this is that man is saved only by recognizing and accepting his lower self: he ascends by first descending.
The Decay Motif
Greene pictures the death of Mexico under its godless government through vivid details of decay, physical sordidness, and sterility. The General Obregon looks as though it is ready to sink, and busts of recent heroic generals are being covered quickly with mildew. As the nauseous and forgetful Tench walks toward the wharf, he spits bile into the street, becoming one of many
people in the novel who express their disgust by spitting. The curfew is an artificial device to secure a moribund state against the rain and the heat, both moral and physical, which constantly threatens to engulf it. The crumbling of Mexico is seen in taxis that have no passengers, dynamos that run only haltingly and sporadically, grandmothers who rock back and forth silently, locked in the prisons of their memories, and playground swings that stand like gallows next to a ruined cathedral. The novel is saturated with the "green sour smell" of a Mexican river.